The Red Queen

The Red Queen

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‘It’s the first time in forty years. There are snow scenes from all around New Zealand—snow-covered houses, playgrounds, a group of children sliding down a hill on signs, the bucket fountain on Cuba Street lightly dusted.’ In her first collection of stories, Gemma Bowker-Wright leads us into the phases of transition and transformation in people’s lives: a dream job, a rare afternoon between son and father, a man losing his wife to Alzheimer’s, a first snow. Like the Red Queen of Through the Looking-Glass, many of these characters are running hard to stay in the same place, but moving ever forward. Their stories, which echo stories from evolution, ecology, and meteorology, form a deeply perceptive and captivating first book. Gemma Bowker-Wright was the winner of the 2010 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition and the 2011 BNZ Katherine Mansfield Competition for short fiction. The Red Queen is her first book.

From: The Red Queen, by Gemma Bowker-Wright

The Red Queen

The dream started during my last year at university. A time Alice and I assumed would be the best year of our lives.

That year I lived in a flat with Alice and Daniel in Mount Victoria. It was one of those old, neglected Wellington houses that had been worn down by the wind. Alice and I had found it at the end of our second year. It had three bedrooms and was made of weatherboard that was slowly rotting. There was a two-inch gap beneath the doorway. Some of the windows had been nailed shut by the landlord, who didn’t want to pay to have them fixed. A turquoise mould crept across the back of the cupboards in the kitchen, which got no sun. But it still felt like a palace.

Alice and I had been friends since kindergarten. We met Daniel in second-year Genetics and he needed a flat at the same time we needed a flatmate. Daniel came from Winnipeg, a city near the centre of Canada, hours and hours from the sea. He was older than us and doing his third undergraduate degree.

We spent the two weeks before the final semester drinking and lying in the watery autumn sun. Even though it was freezing, Alice sunbathed in her brown and red bikini which caused all the boys in the flat next door to mill around their kitchen window. But Alice didn’t notice—she was taking four papers that semester and had lots of reading to do before the term started. Daniel and I were both taking three. All of us were doing the Evolution paper.

Since the beginning of our first year at university everyone had been telling us that Evolution was the best paper. Alice and I bought The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins from an overpriced bookshop on Lambton Quay several weeks before it started. Months later, they still had that new book smell.

Classes started in June. The first lecture for Evolution was on the Red Queen Hypothesis. Alice, Daniel and I went early and sat in the middle of the lecture theatre. The lecturer, Dr McKenzie, was a tall, thin man with oversized limbs. He looked a bit like a giant, spindly bird. While he was waiting for everyone to arrive and stop talking he strutted along the runway at the front of the lecture theatre, his black silhouette outlined against the projector.

‘For an evolutionary system, continuing development is needed in order to maintain its fitness relative to the systems it is co-evolving with,’ he began when everyone was finally seated. Alice started to write notes furiously. Daniel sat very still and closed his eyes. I wrote ‘Lecture One’ and then traced the outline of my left hand.

Dr McKenzie showed a slide with a picture of the Red Queen standing beside Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. There was a speech bubble coming out of the Red Queen’s mouth. ‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,’ she was saying.

‘The Red Queen provides a metaphor—a conceptual underpinning to the evolutionary arms race. One example of the evolutionary arms race is a predator-prey system. In such a system, the predator is continuously evolving to become better at catching the prey. The prey, therefore, has to keep evolving to become better at avoiding the predator—or it will become extinct. As neither predator nor prey is making significant gains on the other, it seems like they are both “running on the spot” in an evolutionary sense.’

Dr McKenzie strutted as he talked, back and forth across the front of the lecture theatre. As he moved the projector did odd things to his silhouette, making it very small and then very tall and long—with every step, it looked as though he was covering a great distance.

‘Jen, remember at primary school,’ whispered Alice, ‘when everyone used to call me Alice in Wonderland?’ I looked across at her in the semi-darkness. She smiled, not requiring an answer, and began to take notes again.

‘“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,”’ said Dr McKenzie, pointing at the quote as though we were children who couldn’t read yet.

I had my first dream about the Red Queen in early July. We were a month into the Evolution paper by this time and learning about Darwin from a new lecturer who was solid and bald and had a strong English accent. I was already behind with my notes.

In the dream she was walking beside me. We were making our way along beside a river that flowed away from the sea. Occasionally we stopped and walked backwards for a while. After a long time we got to a beach that had an ocean with no waves.

‘Keep running,’ she told me, her crimson face barely moving when she talked. She had a tiny rosebud nose. Below us the golden sand moved on an endless conveyor belt, but we remained standing in the same place. We started to walk again, this time out through the waves. The water rose slowly over my feet. And then to my knees. It passed over my waist.

I woke up with the sheets in a tangle at my feet. My back was damp with sweat. I got up and walked to the window to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. It was one of the windows that had been nailed shut.

The dream recurred every night for the next three weeks. Each time I woke up and then couldn’t go back to sleep.

Eventually I told Alice about it. We were sitting on the eighth floor of the university library. Far below us, Wellington harbour was stretched out like a hand.

‘It’s just your brain processing stuff,’ she said. She didn’t look up from the page she was studying, ‘Maybe you should try sleeping pills? I could ask my dad for some.’ Alice’s father was a doctor.

‘Nah,’ I said. ‘I’m fine.’

I turned back to my textbook. I was reading about the break-up of Gondwanaland, a process that began 167 million years ago. The textbook showed a series of pictures of it all drifting apart. Each continent was a different colour so you could see how they once fitted into a single landmass. Antarctica was blue. I liked the way it once fitted so perfectly into the bottom of a yellow Australia, a green South America and an orange Africa.

‘Look at this,’ I said to Alice. ‘The continents are still moving apart, at about the pace fingernails grow.’

We looked at our fingernails. Both of us were wearing red nail polish we’d put on the night before. Mine was beginning to chip.

I started sleeping with Daniel in August.

Later on, I could never remember much about the night when it started—beyond the moment itself, that is. We were out drinking somewhere on Courtenay Place, near the Embassy where Gollum was still scaling the roof. Alice went off to buy drinks. Daniel was sitting close beside me on a tall bar stool, leaning backwards against the bar. He was wearing a sky-blue shirt with almost invisible silver stripes. I noticed he had a tiny scar over his right eye but the rest of his face was flawless. Reaching over, he ran his forefinger lightly down my thigh. I didn’t move. I wondered if for some crazy reason he had got me mixed up with Alice. Most guys I knew back then wanted to be with Alice.

‘How are you finding Evolution?’ I said, eventually. ‘I really liked cladistics.’ I could feel my voice frothing over like a shaken beer. He started to laugh. We left Alice at the bar and got the bus home. Without talking, went into his room. Taking off our clothes, we left them in a crumpled heap on the floor.

For almost a month, I didn’t dream about the Red Queen.

We learnt about Punctuated Equilibrium in September. Daniel liked this theory. He read everything Stephen Gould and Ernst Mayr had written about it. Alice preferred Richard Dawkins and Phyletic Gradualism. Once we went for a walk around to Oriental Bay, buying cheap wine from New World on the way, and debated it loudly.

‘That’s bull,’ said Alice. Her nose was red from the northerly wind screaming along the beach. We were sitting huddled in a row on the cold sand watching the grey-green water lap at the shoreline.

‘Dawkins is bull,’ said Daniel. He drank straight from the bottle and passed it to me. I looked around nervously and wondered if the people walking by thought we were troublemakers.

‘Anyway,’ said Alice, drawing a line in the sand with her finger, ‘Darwin said so.’ She was wearing a puffer jacket that was far too big for her.

Daniel started to laugh. ‘Just look at the fossil record,’ he said. ‘Things don’t happen in a continuous line.’

I watched as a woman walked towards us along the beach. From a distance her face looked round and crimson. I shivered and felt the wine going to my head. Daniel let his hand rest in the centre of my back. Beside me, Alice lay down in the sand and giggled. ‘Let’s just stay here,’ she said.

We had parties in our flat every Saturday in October to keep out the cold. We covered the kitchen table with a white sheet and swept the dust into a pile behind the fridge. The same people turned up each time. Most of them were taking the Evolution paper. The flat resonated with laughter and raised voices talking about how we were going to save the world from pollution and deforestation and climate change. In the mornings the flat smelt of beer and marijuana.

My mother called one evening when we had just started drinking. I’d already had two beers. Alice was perched on the kitchen table drinking white wine from a red mug. We were talking about going into town.

‘Hi love.’ I could hear her open the oven door then let it bang shut. ‘How’s the course work going?’

‘Fine Mum.’

Alice dropped the mug and it rolled across the diamond-patterned lino floor, leaving a trail of opaque liquid. She started to giggle.

‘What was that?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You’re not drinking are you? Isn’t it getting close to exam time?’

‘They’re not for ages yet.’

‘Well don’t leave it too long, that’s all I’m saying.’

I could hear a bump at the other end of the phone and a strained whisper.

‘Stop worrying, Mum. I’ll be fine. See you later.’

‘Just be careful, Jen.’ Her voice had a brittle edge to it. ‘One day you’ll blink and find out you’re forty and haven’t done anything with your life.’

I sighed and said goodbye. My mother was always coming out with grim warnings like that.

We got home from town at four in the morning. The gloomy, early morning light was just beginning to take hold.

‘Do you think we’ll still know each other when we’re forty?’ I asked Daniel. We were lying in his bed, still dressed in our going-out clothes. I could feel his body close to mine, but I couldn’t see his face. He said nothing for a long time and then made a faint sound—something halfway between a snort and a laugh.

Everything seemed to deteriorate during the final week of lectures. Daniel and I started to fight. We yelled at each other then apologised, but felt no better. We avoided each other in the flat. I started to get up early and arrive home late. I tried to talk to Alice but she had just found a new boyfriend who took up most of her time. The boyfriend, Scott, was a Financial Advisor for a firm of lawyers in a shiny building on the waterfront. He bought Alice new clothes and in the weekends he drove her around the coast to Eastbourne in his Subaru.

I started to panic about what to do the following year. I went to the Careers Centre, where an African woman with short curly hair gave me a collection of brochures for MSc programmes at different universities. Each brochure was the same—a few bullet points overloaded with adjectives and a picture of a group of glossy, multi-ethnic students standing around a microscope or holding fossilised shells, all the time smiling so hard it looked as though their faces might split. As I looked through the brochures, I started to feel nauseous. I thanked the woman, and left. Opposite the Counselling Centre was a disabled toilet. Inside I splashed water on my face and ran my hands through my hair. Red strands broke off and coiled around my fingers. On the wall above the mirror someone had written in black Vivid:

Time rises and rises, until it reaches the level of your eyes. And then you drown.

The night before the final lecture in Evolution I had a nightmare about the Red Queen. She was chasing me across the beach at Oriental Bay. She was laughing. We got closer and closer to the grey-green water. I ran as fast as I could but the ground was moving in the opposite direction.

Alice decided we should have one final party to celebrate the end of the Evolution paper. It was the week before exams. Neither Daniel nor I had the energy to agree or disagree—I don’t think either of us cared anymore. Alice decorated the flat with streamers and blew up bunches of balloons which she arranged in matching colours. Then she made pink and blue cocktails in glasses she had bought for the occasion and lined them up like chess pieces on the kitchen table.

People began to arrive around eight o’clock. They filled up the kitchen, then the lounge, spilling out into the hallway and onto the verandah in twos and threes and fours, until every available space was taken up.

Alice got drunk quickly. She was wearing a new white dress made of silky fabric with a ribbon around her waist; it looked a bit like a wedding dress. She handed me a cocktail that tasted sickly sweet. Scott trailed close behind Alice. He looked displaced, his shiny black shoes like foreign objects on the dirty lino floor.

‘I never told you this,’ Alice whispered to me, ‘but when I was little I always wanted to be a marching girl.’ She giggled loudly.

I walked out onto the verandah, away from the noisy stereo. Daniel was already there, balancing on the railings.

‘Hey,’ I said.

‘Hey.’

‘Good party eh?’

‘Yeah. It’s great.’

Inside, people were starting to shout.

‘So, it’s almost the end eh?’

‘Yeah. I guess.’

‘If you could go back in time,’ I said, ‘where would you go?’

‘What’re you talking about?’

‘I mean if you could go back somewhere and live it again, like an event or something, or a time you were just really happy, where would you go?’

A siren cried from somewhere in the city and the sound reverberated off the hills.

‘Okay. This one time when I was in the South Island with a group of mates, we went to Fiordland. Shit it was beautiful. I wouldn’t mind having that trip again.’

He laughed at a memory I didn’t know anything about.

I wanted him to ask me the same question. He didn’t. It was a silly question anyway. We looked out at Wellington Harbour far below, and the line where the sand met the sea. The line that was creeping inwards, at the same speed fingernails grow.

Exams went quickly. Alice came in the top five percent. Daniel just scraped through. I came somewhere in the middle. We would graduate in May the next year.

About a week before the graduation ceremony, Daniel told me he had been accepted into Minnesota University. He showed me the brochure for the Freshwater Biology course he was going to take—it had a picture of snowy hills behind a flat, aquamarine lake. He said I should come over and visit him sometime, if I wanted to. I was getting worried about what to do next year and where I would live. Alice was leaving too—she had decided to move in with Scott, who owned a three-bedroom apartment on the Terrace. ‘Anyway it’s what people do next, isn’t it?’ she’d said when she told me, and then turned away, not requiring an answer.

On graduation day my parents and Alice’s parents milled around in the foyer, smiling and chatting and admiring each other’s clothes. My mother had bought a whole new outfit with a new red lipstick to match. My father was wearing a suit with a black tie. They looked older than I remembered. Daniel’s parents were missing; they couldn’t make it all the way from Canada.

Photo after photo was taken. Me and Alice. Daniel with me and Alice on either side. Alice with Scott. Me between my parents.

And then the ceremony began. We each walked across the stage when our name was called. Alice was near the start; Daniel was somewhere in the middle; I was near the end. Our parents clapped and whistled and shouted. And it seemed, for the shortest moment, that everything was completely still but I was moving quickly, each footstep becoming faster and faster. And then it all started again.

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